Your heart is a pump, making sure oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood keeps moving throughout your body. It does this by beating about 100,000 times per day, pumping 5 to 6 quarts of blood a minute. That’s 2,000 gallons a day!
While keeping the beat is crucial, sometimes your heart doesn’t do it quite right. An irregular and often rapid heart rate, a condition called atrial fibrillation or AFib, causes poor blood flow to the rest of the body.
Here are five things to know about this common heart condition:
- What happens during AFib
During an atrial fibrillation episode, your heart’s atria (the two upper chambers) beat irregularly, chaotically, and out of sync with the ventricles (the two lower chambers).
This can cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, weakness, less ability to exercise, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, lightheadedness, or chest pain.
- AFib can cause clotting
If your heartbeat isn’t strong and steady, it can lead to blood collecting or pooling in the upper chambers of your heart. Pooled blood is more likely to form clots.
Clots can travel through your bloodstream to your legs, lungs, or brain. A clot that reaches the brain can block blood flow and cause a stroke.
- It can be occasional or permanent
In some cases, symptoms come and go, lasting minutes to hours and then stopping. But if you have atrial fibrillation, it won’t just go away.
If you have persistent atrial fibrillation, your heart rhythm can’t go back to normal on its own. You’ll need treatments such as an electrical shock or medications to restore your heart’s rhythm – and you may need blood thinners to prevent clots.
- It’s an issue with the heart’s electrical system
Health issues such as high blood pressure or coronary heart disease can cause wear and tear on your heart, making it difficult to do its job. Health conditions that affect the structure of your heart, such as heart attack, heart failure, heart valve disease, and cardiomyopathy, can put you at risk for AFib – as can lifestyle habits like smoking or heavy drinking.
- The good news: AFib can be treated
If your AFib is caused by a specific event or an underlying health condition, treating the condition can relieve issues with your heart rhythm. But sometimes the exact cause of atrial fibrillation is difficult to determine. In this case, your doctor will look at your symptoms and risk for other health problems to help determine treatment.
Helping you feel better and preventing future problems – especially heart failure and stroke – are your doctor’s goals with AFib. They may aim treatment at slowing your heart rate, controlling your heart rhythm, or preventing a stroke.
But you’re part of keeping your heart healthy, too. Eating right, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol under control, and following up regularly with your doctor are smart steps toward improving your overall heart health.
Kathleen Zazzali, DO, is a cardiology and electrophysiology specialist who sees patients at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital and Geisinger Cardiology in Port Matilda. To make an appointment or for more information, visit geisinger.org/heart or call 800-230-4565.